Over a year ago, I had to quit my veterinary practice. Worsening allergic complications had made life very difficult. Testing showed that I had become allergic to my feline patients. I did not give up my cats. There are six of them, all rescues, special hazards of the veterinary profession.
My severely asthmatic childhood featured cats. Many of them. My mother could not resist, and there was at least 16 to 22 cats in my home life at all times. For a while, I had 8 cats spending their nights with me. From preteens into late teens, one special cat slept every night with his nose against mine, chin to cheek. He drooled when he was happy, right over my closed eye. By the time I started vet school, I could say I had personally slept with over 100 cats.
Allergy tests in my childhood were negative for cats. I was strongly reactive to house dust mite and grasses. Eventually, I became allergic to dogs. One dog, Moggy, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, was my constant companion, like that special cat, from preteen to young adulthood. I trained him as a puppy – in those pre-internet days, I got several books on dog training from the library, and applied only the methods I did not find cruel. In his old age, I would come up with welts all over my arms and face, wherever his coat touched my skin. Despite being allergic to horses, I found a way to learn to ride and keep a horse. The horse and dogs were bathed weekly, and a vacuum cleaner adapted for grooming helped.
Most allergies require time and exposure to develop. I was not born allergic to cows, but in my final year of vet school, a skin reaction on exposure to bovine serum was my first clue that that allergy had developed. It may have been a tick bite, but for the last 20 odd years, a sulfite-soy-sugar-free vegan diet has helped control both asthma and atopic dermatitis from red meat and bovine serum allergy.
Asthmatics do not need to live in a sterile bubble, denied of other sentient species companionship, exercise or any life experience that might induce “stress”. We can learn in early childhood the breathing techniques to manage stress-induced (psychological) and exercise-induced asthma. We may not be super athletes, but we can and should keep ourselves fit, enjoying the physical activities we love. Neither do we shy away from excelling in our careers, facing the daily stresses without panicked breathlessness. For those of us who enjoy and thrive with animal companionship, we can still do so, throughout our lives.
Cat dander is a ubiquitous environmental allergen, present in every space people gather, and in new furniture or bedding items, even where cats have not been. Even if you do not have a cat, you are likely to be exposed in any school room, library and store. There is no such thing as a hypoallergenic cat, despite the marketing. We also may be more allergic to individual cats than others. The cat carries the environment on their coats – everything that becomes dust – fluff, mites, skin cells, furniture flame retardents, cleaning product residues, perfumes, smoke, exhaust pollutants from the street, pollens, moulds, hair; it is a never ending list – will be on a cat’s coat. They lick it off and we bury our faces in it. Logically, then, to reduce exposure, we need to keep our living space and our cats clean.
Keeping a dust-free home is essential. This means no carpets, anywhere in the home. The clutter has to be off the floor, and well-organised. Everything has to be easy to vacuum or dust. The entire home is vacuumed and dusted every day. There is no point in buying a cheap vacuum. Get one that is designed for allergies and pets, with a HEPA filter. A central vacuum, if you can have one, is great because the motor and return air is far away from you, but they don’t come with good filters. Vacuums blow air back out at you, and that should be clean micro-filtered air. You do need a vacuum. Sweeping merely rearranges the dust.
The air vents and duct filters for the home are cleaned bi-annually. I try to avoid air-conditioned air, but whether in winter or summer, when air is being circulated around my living space, I want it to be clean.
The cat’s beds are polyester fleece kennel mats, simple to heap into something comfortable for the disabled Sutton, easy to wash and dry. The cat’s bedding is washed every day, removing a significant source of dust and dander. I keep the cats sleeping areas warm with heating pads, always on low, slipped between the top layers of the beds. They prefer to cozy up in their own beds and safe zones most of the time, but I still have to keep a cat-free bedroom for myself, into which I have to retreat should Finnegan persist on drooling into my left ear.
The choice of bedding and how the bed is set up is important. Everything needs to be “hypoallergenic”. Today we have much better options than those horrible lumpy foam or synthetic pillow options I tolerated and hated in my childhood.
Always put a waterproof cover on the mattress. This helps with house dust mites as well as protecting the mattress. The pillows can be frozen every few months or so to kill the mites. It also helps to have a protective pillow cover underneath the pillow case.
Now to the cats. There is a little extra work involved other than the housekeeping and choice of bedding.
Most of my cats are trained to accept being wiped, in gentle small motions, with a warm damp cloth. Cats bond by grooming each other, and this daily grooming routine simply strengthens the bond you have with your cat. Starting and ending with the chin and face, they eventually allow me to take the cloth all over their dusty little bodies. The cloth will pick up the dust, saliva residue and loose fur. Cats carry the entire environment on their coats, all the house dust – helping them groom it off may be one way to prevent cancers and hyperthyroidism in our house cats, but certainly keeping cleaner cats helps me breathe.
Shedding season is a wheeze-mare, signaled by an increase in fuzzy dust bunnies in the corners and cat hair more than just everywhere. I simply have the cats shaved. Four out of the five cats will allow me to do this. They have multiple heated beds, so they can deal with the cold. Pipette is currently the only long-haired cat. She loves the shave, even though we do need to sedate her for the scary clipper bit, because she can groom herself without constantly getting hair stuck in her mouth. All the cats find the heat of summer more tolerable when they are shaved. Finnegan is an extreme shedder, and he will likely spend the rest of his life with a lion cut.
There are no carpeted cat “trees” or scratching posts. The cats have bare wood, with sisal wrapped on some of them. They also have several of the flat cardboard scratchers in every room. These are cheap, easy to vacuum, and easy to replace. Bare wood shelves were provided for them to express climbing and exploration behaviour. They now have access to a backyard since we moved away from the city (which made a huge difference to breathability!), but we still provide indoor environmental enrichment.
Cat litter is by nature dusty. Clay-based litters are well associated with lung disease in both cats and humans. I use a plant-based flushable litter. We have multiple litter boxes. Never place a lid on a litter box. This leads to so many problems – taking the lid off a litter box is the first thing advised when doing a behavioural, house-soiling or constipation consultation. The boxes are open, easily accessible and easily cleanable. A flushable litter avoids stinky build-up. The litter dust is brown – easy to see and thus easy to clean up. It has been the easiest dust for me to handle – I have found other litter types to be much harder on my lungs. Pelleted litters are hard to manage hygienically, stinky, and not well tolerated by sensitive cat feet and crippled or older cats. The silica crystal litters are a no-go because of hygiene, sore feet, and dust.
Keep your pets, even indoor pets, free of parasites. This helps to reduce allergens. Pay attention to their dental and oral health. Taking care of tooth infections and dental disease effectively and early will not only reduce the amount of allergen exposure, but helps your cat live longer with less chronic facial pain. I don’t have my cat’s teeth cleaned (the so-called “dental”) with any frequency, but I do check their teeth and mouths more than twice a year, and insist on feline specialist dental care when they need it. Some of my cats have been atopic individuals themselves. Managing their allergies effectively has been key to less allergen exposure for me.
NASA publishes a list of the best air-cleaning indoor plants. The ASPCA publishes a list of plants toxic to cats, and at the end of this list is one of plants safe for cats. As much as possible, I have filled my living space with air-cleaning plants safe for cats. The cats have constant catnip and catgrass growing, so they do not bother the houseplants.
All household cleaning products are hypoallergenic and unscented. I also limit the number of products. There is laundry detergent, but no dryer lint pads or fabric softeners. There is a cleaning detergent, which is the same as the hand dish detergent. For the ceramics, there is a surface cleaner. I avoid spray bottles, so will pour the window cleaner out onto a cloth rather than spray it. There is no bleach, although for the occasional disinfectant need, I have the modified hydrogen peroxide.
The same applies to personal care. I share my hypo-allergenic shampoo with Sutton. All products are perfume-free, hypoallergenic, and non-petroleum based.
There are no candles, tea-lights, incense, odor removers, “air fresheners” or anything that may trigger. Luckily, most people no longer douse themselves in heavily perfumed products. No smoker or anyone who lives with a smoker is welcome to visit. The worst are smokers. Smoke anything is a sure killer, and no asthmatic can afford to tolerate the second-hand death smokers inflict. This includes cannabis and vaping.
Of course, I need to avoid dietary allergens. Environmental allergens such as the seasonal grasses allergens cannot be avoided, and it is debatable if air “purifiers” with HEPA filters make any difference, but I have them working for me. Taking every step possible to reduce allergen exposure does make a big difference in seasonal quality of life.
The most important aspect of being able to live with my cats, and when I had other pets, like the horse, dogs, guinea-pigs and birds, is keeping my living space and the animals clean. Whilst I may never learn to like the daily routine of endless housework, it is a reasonable and essential part of living, and it keeps me breathing with less drugs. I would have to do it even if the cats were not living with me, so why not keep the cats!